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The uses of castles

A castle was not just a fortified structure. It was also a way of running a country that had no form of centralised administrative, judicial or military organisation. These functions were farmed out by the king to loyal followers who could administer the mechanics of government at a local level. In return for their service to the king, these lords received land. The land awarded could be the size of a modern day county or it could be just a few thousand acres, and these parcels of land were called baronies. On his land the baron could build one or more castles, depending on his wealth and the need for administration.

Those who held land from the king could then sub-divide their land between their own tenants. The lowest level were the peasantry who held small plots of land just large enough to support their own family. In return for the land the peasants would work a few days on their lord's land. This system of dividing and sub-dividing land was known as the feudal system.

As well as being an administrative centre for a district, a castle was also a home built within a necessary military framework. As the medieval period progressed and there was less and less need for military action the emphasis came to be on the castle as a place of comfort rather than protection.

In the medieval period castle walls of stone were often plastered and lime-washed both inside and out, with the dressed (shaped) stones above the windows and doors left uncovered. The domestic rooms of the castle would have been decorated to the lord's taste with murals and tapestries. Glass was expensive and mainly used in churches, so the windows in castles were left open, or closed with wooden shutters. There were fireplaces in the living rooms and often a central hearth in the Great Hall. Toilets or latrines with chutes that discharged into the moat were common in many castles. 

A lord would often have more than one estate and would travel from one to the other; his possessions and staff would travel with him, leaving the unoccupied estates devoid of most of their furnishings and with only a skeleton staff to run them.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2002]